Top 10 Reasons to Mediate

Thousands of studies have shown the positive effects of meditation. Here are the highlights.

BY WANDERLUST 

Sergey Nivens/Dollar Photo Club

The benefits of a meditation practice are no secret. The practice is often touted as a habit of highly successful (and happy) people, recommended as a means of coping with stress and anxiety, and praised as the next-big-thing in mainstream wellness. And it’s not just anecdotal. Thousands of studies have shown the positive impact that meditating has on our health and well-being. We’ve culled through the list to bring you highlights from the early stages of research into mindfulness.

Sleep Better: More Shut-Eye at Night Means Brighter Days

Sleep isn’t just relaxation for eight hours a day—it’s essential to our cognitive functioning. Meditation gives you all sorts of benefits, like enhanced REM sleep and increased levels of melatonin.

Turns out it can even help serious sleep problems. Researchers conducted a study to see if mindfulness meditation would benefit those struggling with chronic insomnia. After eight weeks, those in the meditation training had less total wake time during the night, were more relaxed before going to bed, and reduced the severity of their sleep problems. Plus, in a follow-up study six months later, the insomnia sufferers had maintained a better quality of sleep.

Stress Less: Make Room for More Happiness

It’s a little-known secret that Wall Street execs, famous artists, and Silicon Valley whiz kids are some of the biggest advocates of meditation as a way to manage stress.

A 2005 study at Harvard Medical School found that meditation increases the thickness of your prefrontal cortex, the area of your brain associated with attention and self-awareness.

Furthermore, we now know it even reduces employee stress and burnout. A study on teachers at a school for children with severe behavioral problems who were treated to a Transcendental Meditation program had less stress, less depression, and overall lower burnout than other teachers.

More Mindful Meals: No More Stress Eating

Researchers at UC San Francisco studied a group of women to test if meditating could prevent overeating. The scientists didn’t prescribe any diet, but instead taught mindful eating, and had participants meditate for thirty minutes a day. What happened? While the control group actually gained weight, the treatment participants maintained their weights, plus lowered their cortisol levels. Higher reductions in cortisol and stress also showed higher reductions in abdominal fat.

Reduce Pain and Heal Faster: Relieve Pain by Changing Your Mind

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who heads up the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at University of Massachusetts Medical School, proved back in the ‘80s that meditation and mindfulness could significantly improve pain symptoms and quality of life in chronic pain patients, even up to four years later. His program, called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is practiced widely.

Recently, we’ve also gotten a look at how the brain might be involved. When researchers had people participate in four days of mindfulness-based training, participants reported less pain intensity and unpleasantness. What’s more, MRIs showed reductions in pain-induced cerebral blood flow during meditation sessions.

Beat Anxiety: Send Worries Packing

Focusing on all the terrible things that might happen to us—but often don’t!—takes us away from the present, and causes our bodies a lot of stress.

Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, found that meditation could even help those with generalized anxiety disorder, a condition marked by hard-to-control worries, poor sleep, and irritability.

Smile More: A Happy Pill, with No Side Effects

Meditation helps us gain awareness of our minds, so we can see negative thoughts and say “those thoughts are not me.” Becoming less identified with our emotions and thoughts helps those thoughts lose power.

A Harvard study found that mind-wandering, which often means drifting to these negative thoughts, was linked to unhappiness. And recently, Madhav Goyal, who led a study by Johns Hopkins researchers, said that for depression, “we found a roughly 10 to 20 percent improvement in depressive symptoms compared to the placebo groups. This is similar to the effects of antidepressants in similar populations.”

Relax: Don’t Let the Little Things Get You Down

Relaxing your body and mind with meditation helps you to stay centered when you inevitably encounter those everyday stressors—rush hour traffic, anyone?

Investigators from the Benson-Henry Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital found that practicing meditation causes what is called the “relaxation response,” the opposite of the “fight-or-flight” response—what happens to our bodies when we get stressed. Their studies showed that the relaxation response alleviates anxiety and also has positive effects on heart rate, blood pressure, and brain activity.

Enhance Your Love Life: Your Relationship Will Thank You

Your partner will thank you. By learning to better recognize your own emotions, and those of others, you’ll more easily experience lasting harmony in your relationships.

Researchers from the University of California-San Francisco taught 82 female teachers, all married or living with a partner, how to meditate. Compared with a control group that hadn’t learned meditation, the women gave fewer negative facial expressions during a marital interaction test. Good news, because studies at UC Berkeley showed that people who demonstrate negative facial expressions toward their partners are more likely to divorce.

Maharishi International University in Iowa found that women who practiced meditation reported significantly greater marital satisfaction than those who didn’t. Those who meditated regularly saw the greatest benefits.

Lead a Successful Life: A Clear Path to Achieving Your Goals

Maybe you’ve heard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be great at something. The Beatles played 1,200 concerts together before becoming internationally known. Bill Gates started programming in eighth grade. But new research shows there’s a different formula for success.

World-class athletes, top managers and world-class performers, when tested, have all shown high levels of what’s called brain integration. This means that their brains are wired with strong connections between the different areas, they have heightened attention, and they’re able to think quickly to deal with problems.

This is the new key to success, as noted by U.S. neuroscientist Dr. Fred Travis, because it’s the fire starter behind the creativity that often leads to success.

Luckily, a study from Harvard Medical School demonstrated that meditation causes changes in brain waves that actually improve the brain’s functionality. You can find success in any area of your life, and just think of all the time you’ll save!

This article originally appeared on Wanderlust.com


Scientific Research: The Benefits of Meditation for Beginners

When you hear the word meditation, what comes to mind? Peace? Clarity? A particular practice or technique? The image of a yogi in lotus pose? Or perhaps you think, “Sounds great, but I really don’t have the time to meditate.” Maybe you’ve heard about the benefits, how meditation reduces stress levels and produces a calmer state of mind. Maybe you’ve even experienced these benefits yourself.

 

For those who are interested in the healing effects of meditation, there’s been plenty of research over the past several decades that attests to the validity of many a meditator’s anecdotal evidence. Time and again, researchers are finding that people who meditate experience lower levels of anxiety, anger, depression, and tension, and that meditation can also be a supportive practice for those who have experienced trauma. While the causal relationship between meditation and these psychological benefits may be (as of yet) somewhat unknown, evidence does suggest that they may have a lot to do with a restructuring of the brain itself.

People who meditate experience lower levels of anxiety, anger, depression, and tension, and that meditation can also be a supportive practice for those who have experienced trauma.

Recently a team of researchers from the University of Sienna came together to study mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). They described the practice as a “meditation-based program in which participants are invited to connect with their physical sensations, perceptions, emotions, cognitions, and behaviour over a period of eight weeks with a ‘non-judgmental’ attitude.”

The purpose was to measure the possible scope of neuroanatomical changes resulting from meditative practices, specifically at both the cortical and subcortical brain levels. The research was groundbreaking as most studies over the past decade have focused on highly accomplished meditators, while all of the 48 participants in this study were “meditation-naïve subjects.”

Requisites to their participation included a score higher than 27 on the Mini-Mental Status Examination (a 30-point questionnaire often used to measure cognitive impairment), the absence of psychiatric or neurological disorders in their personal medical history, and the ability to participate in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study. Participants were divided into two groups—24 of the subjects underwent MBSR training and were primarily taught methods such as body scanning, sitting meditation, walking meditation, and mindful stretching movements, while the remaining 24 (the control group) were not. Those involved in the training were asked to attend in-class sessions for 2.5 hours every week and encouraged to use the meditative techniques they learned in their developing personal practice for 45 minutes daily. They were also asked to journal about their experience. Between the sixth and seventh class, the participants were invited to a silent retreat.

Meditation enhanced the areas of the brain involved in perception and the regulation of emotion.

Both the trainees and the control group submitted to MRI scans and psychological testing before and after the eight-week training period. Among the MBSR-trained participants, the results indicated “an increase of cortical thickness in the right insular lobe and somatosensory cortex,” as well as “a significant after-training reduction of several psychological indices related to worry, state anxiety, depression, and alexithymia.” (Alexithymia is difficulty in experiencing and describing one’s emotions.) In short, meditation enhanced the areas of the brain involved in perception and the regulation of emotion.

What does this mean for practitioners and soon-to-be practitioners of meditation? According to Rolf Sovik, PsyD, the Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute, the findings are not only validating for beginners they also speak to a larger inquiry.

“The findings suggest that even beginning-level meditation training can have potentially powerful neurological effects. And as the researchers involved in this experiment have taken a broad-minded approach in their examination of meditation, it also raises an intriguing question: What is the active ingredient that makes meditation meditation, the ingredient that is responsible for any changes observed in the study?”

According to the researchers themselves, the benefits of meditation may simply have been the result of the practitioners’ increasing non-judgmental awareness of their moment-to-moment bodily sensations. In his 2012 interview with Omega, Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder of MSBR training, came to a similar conclusion, emphasizing the transformative ability of the meditative process. “Science is now documenting that it’s not the objects of meditation that are important; it’s the process of paying attention to them—the attending—that actually influences the organism in a whole range of different ways.”

As to the power of focused attention, author and teacher Sandra Anderson states that it gives us a key to our inner life and offers the potential for mastery over the mind (which is, of course, the goal of yoga). She likens a life lived on autopilot to doors within a mansion that are never opened. “To be able to find a way to see what’s present in those unused rooms, and to be nonjudgmental about it, that’s a huge part of what this gives you. To be able to do that means you’re living [from] a bigger part of your psyche, and that expansiveness gives you a groundedness and a capacity to entertain things that you couldn’t otherwise. Your mind is freer. Your responses are more spontaneous. And the world becomes much bigger because you now have more space, as well as the ability to understand the reality of situations and your responses to them.”

Anderson states that the study is validating and encouraging in a number of ways. For instance, because these practices have such subtle effects, their benefits aren’t always easily recognizable and so practitioners sometimes become discouraged, believing that meditation is a “waste of time.” This study demonstrates that an investment in meditation is indeed a powerful means to reclaiming mental health. “What this study points out to us is that some very simple ways of working with yourself can offer a huge return in terms of quality of life,” says Anderson. “And the fact that [meditation] also changes the way that your brain functions is hugely reassuring to people. It also validates the understanding that we have from the scriptures of the mind being habituated and falling into grooves. When you start practicing, you begin to catch your mind running in certain patterns, emotionally laden patterns perhaps, and you come to realize that they’re not inevitable.”

“What this study points out to us is that some very simple ways of working with yourself can offer a huge return in terms of quality of life.”

According to the Bhagavad Gita, “Yoga is the breaking of contact with pain.” And while this study was not specifically tailored toward yogic meditation techniques, sitting meditation and mindful stretching movements are, without a doubt, central components of the yoga tradition. Yet perhaps what is most exciting about this and other neurological studies is that they suggest that these practices may cause an increase in emotional resilience and brain elasticity. They also indicate that there does seem to be a sort of “active ingredient” that ties practices of meditation and mindfulness together. As to what that is, whether it’s the process of attending or something far more mysterious, the suggestion seems to be that the healing effects of these practices are powerfully real.

Has your practice changed you? Please leave your comments below.